The New York Times today reports that Rev. William Sloane Coffin has died at the age of 81. To a generation slightly older than me, he will be remembered for his vigorous anti-war activities in the late 1960s when he was a chaplain at Yale University. After he left Yale, he became the senior pastor at the Riverside Church in New York. During my three years in New York, I often visited the Riverside Church, where I found Coffin to be among the three or four most inspiring preachers I have ever heard. He was certainly THE best that I’d heard at that point in my life. (Rev. Peter Gomes, chaplain from the Harvard Memorial Church is another on my Best Preachers of All Time list.) Coffin was full of passion for the social justice causes that he wanted the church and the city to promote.
But perhaps my most vivid memory of him was one Easter Sunday. It was the end of the service, and Fred Swann was the Organist/Director of Music at the church. Music for Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah had been distributed to the entire congregation along with our service bulletins. Swann was at the organ, and Coffin conducted the entire congregation. It was, of course, ludicrous, because not a soul was paying the least bit of attention to him up there flailing his arms. But Fred Swann’s playing and the singing of the congregation made for a thrilling occasion.